“One thing I wasn’t prepared for was having a Gulf War veteran breaking into tears on the phone about being able to pay his bills,” said Hiller, president of National Treasury Employees Union Chapter 128. “He’s a Marine just getting his life back together, and suddenly he’s looking at losing $300 a month.”
In the sequester era, union locals are the nexus of anxiety. The national unions, such as the NTEU and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), are waging the public budget battles on Capitol Hill. But it is to the offices of local union leaders such as Hiller that rattled federal workers — more than 300,000 in the Washington region — often turn for information, help and sympathy. Overnight, local union officials have become confidants, financial advisers and social workers.
“There is a curse I keep thinking of: ‘May you live in interesting times,’ ” said Hiller, 59. “It’s both exhausting and rewarding to be in this job right now.”
At the Department of Housing and Urban Development one morning last week, AFGE Local 476 President Eddie Eitches walked the corridors, trying to buck up HUD workers with word of new concessions wrung from the agency.
“Hey, brother, how are you doing?” Eitches asked an employee in the elevator. “What do you think of the agreement?”
The employee, Victor Powell, had not heard of it.
Eitches, a quick-talking, constantly moving former HUD litigator, described negotiations that had reduced the number of furlough days between April and September to seven and ensured that they applied equally to managers and the rank and file.
“That’s better,” Powell said, nodding. “What about the transit supplement?”
Even in the best of times, it can be hard to stay cheerful inside HUD headquarters, a block of drab gray corridors in Southwest Washington once described by a HUD secretary as “10 floors of basement.”
In Local 476’s third-floor offices, next to the staff snack bar, there is not a scrap of natural light. So the walls have been covered with bright art.
“Since we don’t have windows, this is a way of comforting people,” said Eitches, standing beneath a massive portrait of Elvis Costello.
Workers have needed a lot of comforting since furloughs were announced. There were early warnings of as many as 22 forced days off, more than a month’s pay. That was a cause for panic among many staffers, especially coming on top of a three-year pay freeze.
Local 476 represents nearly 6,500 HUD workers. Melissa Jones, a HUD paralegal and union shop steward, has been quietly approached by dozens of them who say they are already living paycheck to paycheck. And sometimes, not so quietly.